Bringing an Animatronic Thing to Life for Netflix

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Bringing an Animatronic Thing to Life for Netflix
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In April of 2022, our special effects studio Raptor House FX (RHFX) was approached by Netflix to explore the feasibility of creating Thing — the classic Addams Family disembodied helping hand — as a self-contained, walking, animatronic puppet.

The project was conceived by the viral marketing agency Whoisthebaldguy to help promote the now critically acclaimed series Wednesday, directed by Tim Burton. Videos intended for social media would follow Thing as he interacted with the unsuspecting public of New York City and Los Angeles; maybe he would even appear at red carpet events and premieres.

YouTube player

The aim was to produce a mechanical magic trick not yet seen in any of the previous Addams Family permutations. For more than 50 years, Thing has been played by a human actor or hand model, originally hidden inside props or furniture, and subsequently “painted out” with green or blue screen compositing technology.

The latest version of Thing that we see in Wednesday was created in this same method. Actor and illusionist Victor Dorobantu brought new life to the character, now redesigned to appear as a Frankenstein-esque, stitch-covered, living severed hand with attitude. On set, Victor was dressed in a chroma blue leotard, with makeup effects applied to his exposed right hand, and a prosthetic wrist stump serving as a clever visual break to further sell the illusion.

Photo by Jesse Velez

To bring a Thing to life practically, without a human actor, would require a wholly unique and surprisingly complex radio-controlled robot. I met with Netflix in April and what followed was an intense 5-month marathon of R&D, from proof of concept, to fine tuning and testing before the shoot, to final aesthetics.

The first hurdle for our team at RHFX was simply to define what we were attempting to create. Thanks to the Addams Family, the sight of a crawling human hand is a common fictional image, but in reality human hands do not walk, or even support their own weight! Nothing about the evolutionary design of hands lends itself to ambulatory movement. The physical form of a human hand, with five legs (fingers), topped with an unbalanced wrist mass, required a completely original approach to animatronics design.
While the final product needed to resemble a human hand, the team was in fact not designing a hand at all; rather, they were designing a pentapod (5-legged) robot with uneven leg placement and a flesh-like silicone skin.

We explored various design philosophies including motorized joints, wheels hidden in the fingertips, and flexible camshafts; but in the end we landed on a single DC drive motor, accompanied by three servomotors for secondary animation. The central issue was designing a fixed mechanical linkage for the pointer, middle, and ring fingers that would be capable of pulling the hand forward across a variety of surfaces.

Photo by Jesse Velez

To solve this puzzle, we hired Canadian maker Ben Eadie, engineering technologist and movie special effects designer. Pulling inspiration from the well-known Strandbeest by Dutch kinetic artist Theo Jansen, Ben designed a linkage system in OnShape for each finger comprised of three rigid, curved “beams” that pivot on one fixed upper point. The second and third beams are attached to rotating cams, driven in fixed ratios to one another by a tightly packed gear stack, which is powered by a toothed belt and a DC motor. Once the finger timing was set, each component could be locked in place relative to each other, and a dependable pulling or pushing force could be generated to move the robot forward or back. Additionally, I designed articulating fingertips, which when joined to Ben’s upper leg linkage, created a lifelike “flick” at the end of each step.

The first tethered walking proof of concept was finished in July, which green-lit the final phase of design. Updated versions of each component were modeled and sent out to various CNC milling shops for speedy manufacture.

The final robot was designed with a bottom-heavy “mass gradient”: the fingertips and leg linkages were machined in 303 stainless steel, while connecting “tendons” and the gear case frame were cut from lighter 6160 aluminum. Atop all that, the battery frame and motor housing are 3D printed in ABS plastic. The result is an extremely stable standing position that can rock back and forth on pinky and thumb servos to achieve lifelike character animation.

All in, the final mech contains close to 50 components, each designed from scratch and either 3D printed in-house at RHFX, or machined by our fabrication partners. The finishing touch: real stitches to close up the silicone skin. Two identical puppets were built so that any on-set repairs would not slow down production.

The final result was a lifelike walking hand which delighted and frightened civilians when it premiered on the streets of New York City. RHFX definitively proved that the character could be brought to life with animatronics. Children screamed, horror fans laughed, and everyone asked with amazement: “How did they do that”? Netflix executives and Tim Burton himself were thoroughly pleased with the result, and the videos produced have received upwards of 100 million views worldwide.

Wednesday has become one of Netflix’s most watched series, with a second season green-lit for production. If the stars and budgets align, we may yet see a practical animatronic Thing crawl on screen sometime in the near future.

  • Project lead — Jesse Velez
  • Walking mech — Ben Eadie
  • Workshop assistant — Miles Berwick
  • Moldmaking and skinning — Cali Jones
  • Silicone paint and finish — Mariah Kierns
  • Machinist — Chris Mora

This article appeared in Make: Volume 85.

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Jesse Velez

Jesse Velez is a designer and fabricator, and co-founder of Raptor House FX, creating specialty items for film, television, live entertainment, and a variety of creative industries. He is crazy about movies, science fiction, and making in all its forms.

View more articles by Jesse Velez


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